The Irrawaddy

Reuters Reporters Case: Judge’s Verdict and a Seven-Year Sentence

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the sentencing of the two Reuters reporters, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, to seven years in prison. I’m chief reporter of The Irrawaddy [Burmese Version], Kyaw Kha and I am joined by U Than Zaw Aung, the lawyer acting for the two reporters and Training Director U Sein Win of Myanmar Journalism Institute.

[Prosecution witness] police captain Moe Yan Naing testified that the two reporters were set up. So the judges didn’t consider your argument and the testimony of the police captain in making the verdict?

Than Zaw Aung: They didn’t consider our argument much. Ko Moe Yan Naing testified in that way, but the court assumed that there was no [other witness] to support his testimony. We said that the information on the documents found in the hands of the reporters had already been published by the state-run newspapers; and that the information found in their mobile phones were already known by the public. I often went to see them in prison to discuss the case. They said they would tell the truth. The principle of their news agency [Reuters] is to never lie, so they told the truth at the trial. I could not teach them much about how to argue at the trial for their defense.

KK: The two reporters were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. The court said that the agenda for the Pope’s visit [to Myanmar], and phone numbers of the deputy chief of staff of AA [Arakan Army] were found in their possession. Every journalist writing about the peace process in Myanmar has the contact numbers of ethnic armed groups. U Sein Win, how do you assess this as a journalist?

Sein Win: The two were said to have breached the Official Secrets Act. Studying their reporting, a foreign journalist from Reuters and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo traveled to the ground [in Rakhine State]. The killings [of Rohingyas in Inn Din Village] are said to be a secret, but in fact, it is an open secret. The Reuters reporters found out about it and began reporting. The term “secret” sounds strange to me. Is murder a secret? I wonder why [authorities] want to hide it. Now we have been given a message regarding press freedom: “Don’t do this or else you will meet the same fate.” In order to charge the reporters under the Official Secrets Act, [the authorities] were supposed to name the enemies of the state to whom they sold the secrets. They couldn’t name them. They couldn’t say secrets were sold to Reuters. The reporters have nothing to do with ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army]. [Authorities] couldn’t say secrets were sold to Bangladesh. Finally, they found the AA.

Journalists have to gather their news sources. If they don’t even have the phone numbers of their sources, how can they work?

KK: The deputy chief of staff of the AA attended the second and third sessions of the 21st Century Panglong [Conference] in Naypyitaw.

SW: Yes, he did and news about the AA has been covered by many news agencies. If authorities are to arrest [those reporting on the AA], they will have to arrest all the journalists who report about the peace process. Authorities have said that they have special exemptions [from prosecution for engaging with armed ethnic groups] for the peace talks. The Tatmadaw [Myanmar army] once spoke out against reporting on the armed ethnic groups. In that case, how can peace be built? The peace process is about expressing the views of two sides. The prospects for peace are dim at present, and if only one side is talked about, the prospects will be lost altogether. It is important to understand that journalists only do their job.

KK: In an interview with [Japanese news agency] NHK, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that the two were prosecuted not for the Rakhine issue, but for other violations. It is quite an interesting point. So there is the question, how much influence does she have in this case? I’ve covered the Kho Tao murder case from the very beginning. While all Thai citizens say that [the two British backpackers] were killed by the son of the village chief, the Thai government was under great pressure. The Thai Prime Minister Prayut covered his police saying he had trust in their police work. Experts have pointed out that this influenced the result of the case. Similarly, how much influence do you think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had on the administration of justice?

TZA: The judicial branch, other branches of the government and the Tatmadaw are in the same boat. From the village administrator to the president, they all represent the government. Many from the government party [NLD] talked about the case while the trial was being held. If they didn’t talk about it, the verdict might have been different. We heard that the judicial branch was instructed to handle the case independently. But considering that they are in the same boat, the judicial branch might have certain opinions.

KK: On social media, some argue that the case was directly handled by the military, and some say that it was by the government. The Home Affairs Ministry is overseen by the Tatmadaw, and some, therefore, say that it was handled by the Tatmadaw. U Than Zaw Aung, what is your view on this?

TZA: As I’ve said, both the government and the Tatmadaw are in the same boat. Last year, reporters who covered the drug-burning ceremony hosted by the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army] were charged by the Tatmadaw but it later withdrew the case and released the reporters. It issued a statement saying that it released them to eliminate grudges regarding past incidents between the two sides. In the Reuters case, the complaint was not filed by the military, but by the police, the Home Affairs Ministry. Regarding the Inn Din case, the military sentenced its own personnel to ten years. We thought that was a cause for concern; if even the military officials are sentenced to ten years, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo might have also been given a minimum ten years’ imprisonment. But they were given just seven years, so I believe that the military has no influence on this case. According to some reports I heard from the Defence Ministry, the military didn’t give any instructions and the decision was up to the government and the judicial branch.

KK: What is your view on this, U Sein Win?

SW: The prosecution was brought by the government. At that time, the president was on a trip and the vice-president allowed police, on his behalf, to go ahead and charge the two. Then the case was brought to trial. We all agreed that the judicial branch might have been given freedom in judging that case. But considering the situation in our country, there has always been influence on the judicial branch in the past so judges may still take care about who has the power, I think. There may not be direct intervention in such a case in this era, but judges may take caution.

KK: You mean it is the military or the government that has power?

SW: Both have the power. Speaking of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s interview with the NHK, I think the main message she wanted to give is that the judicial sector has independence. But she did speak as if they broke the law, which is wrong. If I were the judge, I would be influenced by that. It is a big issue and it is concerned with the military. It is hard for the judges. Who suffered the consequences? In the case of a fault in our country, not only the leaders suffer the consequences, but the country also does and its image is also negatively affected. So it is important that all should join hands to correct it no matter who has done wrong. Either the civilian government or the Tatmadaw should correct it. Only they will know who [wielded influence on the reporters’ verdict].

KK: What serious implications do you think the Reuters case will have on the media world?

SW: It is a big problem to Myanmar’s diplomatic relations with the international community whether it is called ethnic cleansing or genocide.  But, both of them are big issues. The UN [fact-finding mission] also issued a report but I don’t think there will be immediate punitive actions. But they will have impacts on the whole country. The tourism industry has already declined steeply [since the outbreak of the Rakhine issue]. Our people think that the case is only political. But Westerners have humanitarian values and they don’t want to visit and make investments in our country so the issue has an impact on all the aspects of the country. Similarly, the image of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been impacted. She has a huge image, like Mandela, in the international community. She was once the pride of the country, but now she has been stripped of many awards and there have been calls to take away her Nobel prize. It is sad and not good for us.

KK: The punishment of the two reporters serves as a threat to local journalists. They ironically say prisons will be overcrowded with journalists if every journalist who has the phone number of AA’s deputy chief of staff U Nyo Tun Aung is detained and charged. What will you do in response to the verdict?

TZA: We will try every means in line with the law for their release. For the time being, I can only say that.

KK: By ‘in line with the law’, do you mean to appeal?

TZA: Probably. We are considering it.

KK: How serious was the negative impact the verdict has on the democratization process of our country?

SW: The country has been opening up since 2012 and we have the first ever civilian government after a free and fair election [in 2015]. We thought there would be greater progress towards democracy. Now the situation has reversed to the previous stage when democracy and human rights are not important. The country should be focusing on building institutions, but the opposite happened and people are deprived of even fundamental rights. Questions are raised over press freedom, fundamental rights of citizens and security.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!